Steppe plants, from the wilds to your gardens


The steppe — a vast cold treeless plain. A seemingly endless horizon interrupted only by the faint jagged line of mountains in the distance. In summer, the grasses dance in the warm breeze. In the winter, the cold winds move snow horizontally across the plains.

These seemingly harsh environments evoke thoughts of distant nomads riding hard across the prairie. These are the steppes. Steppe biomes occur mainly in four regions of the world: Patagonia, Central Asia, Southern Africa and much of North America. They are typified by cold winters, hot summers and arid conditions punctuated by seasonal moisture. These habitats are very important to people, in part because they are where much of our food comes from. At the same time, they are filled with flowers and beautiful resilient plant life.

In Colorado, we are in the heart of the North American steppe. Often called the Great Plains, this is just a regional term for steppe. Plants we use in our landscapes and gardens should largely be natives. However, there is room to expand your plant pallet, especially if you are using plants that are adapted to similar climates. There can be a lot of information and questions about what plants you should use. Will the plants survive? Will they try to take over? These are all concerns many gardeners have when it comes to making plant choices. After all, they are living things and we are planting them to grow, live and thrive. There are also lots of places to find plants — from the grocery store to the hardware store. So where does one start?

The Plant Select program is a partnership between Colorado State University, Denver Botanic Gardens and green industry partners — wholesale nurseries, garden centers and others — that market and sell plants that are adapted, and will thrive, in the Front Range of Colorado. Many of these plants are native to Colorado or are improved selections of natives. When we say improved, we mean larger flowers, better fall color, disease resistance and some traits that make the plant stand out from the normal populations of plants. Plant Select also recommends and introduces plants from similar regions around the world. One group of these plants is the hardy ice-plants or Delosperma sp. Plant Select has many unique colors of these drought tolerant and showy plants. The best place to shop for these plants is at the Denver Botanic Gardens’ Spring Plant Sale in mid-May and at local, independently owned and operated garden centers. To help find specific plants, the Plant Select website ( is a great resource to learn just about everything you need to know to be successful in steppe-style gardening. Plant Select even gives you lists of places you can see these plants in gardens around the state. The list includes the Denver Botanic Gardens’ York Street and Chatfield Farms locations, which are great places to see these plants and get inspiration for your home landscape.

Mike Bone is the associate director of horticulture and curator of steppe collections for the Denver Botanic Gardens

Denver Botanic Gardens, horticulture


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